Project Management

Process skills most important to successful project managers

Is it more important for a project manager to have good people skills, process skills, or be a subject matter expert? Tom Mochal gives his opinion.

I often get asked whether it is better for a project manager to have good people skills, process skills, or be a subject matter expert. My answer might surprise you. First of course, the more experience, knowledge, and skills a person has, the more likely it is he or she will be successful. In other words, the perfect project manager would probably have a combination of strong people and process management. He or she would also be an expert in the actual technology and business area of the project.

But if you are in the position of prioritizing project management candidates, I would rank people in the following order.

  1. Project management process skills
  2. People skills
  3. Business/technology skills
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Here's my logic: The main responsibility of a project manager is to manage the processes associated with project management. This doesn't mean that project managers must do all this work themselves. For instance, there may be an entire team of people helping to create the Project Definition and workplan. However, if something goes wrong, the project manager is accountable. Once the project starts, the project manager must successfully manage and control the work, including issues management, risk management, scope change management, communications management, etc.

Therefore, I think the key to being a good project manager is understanding the processes associated with managing a project and then proactively applying the processes on the job. Further I have observed how the following combinations of skills worked and did not work on a project.

  • Good process skills and weak business/technology skills. The project manager may not be able to perform activities outside of project management, but that's what the rest of the team is for. One concern is that this type of project manager may not be able to validate quality, but that's okay. The project manager needs to have a process in place to manage quality and validate that the process is executed. I believe a pure project manager can win in this situation.
  • Good process skills but weak people skills. This can make a project much more difficult for team members, but I think that very good process skills can still make the project successful. A good project manager can keep a project on-time and on-budget, which will go a long way toward keeping up morale. I believe a pure project manager can win in this situation.
  • Good people skills but poor process skills. This is the project manager that's a nice guy but doesn’t quite know what he is doing. These types of project managers have difficulty on projects. Everyone likes them, but they're not successful.
  • Good business/technology skills but poor process skills. This happens all the time. People are placed into the project management role because of their strong technical skills or strong business knowledge. Unfortunately, the traits that make a person a strong technologist usually don’t translate directly into the project management arena, and this combination is generally a recipe for failure.

I truly believe that having good project management process skills can make up for deficiencies in people and technology/business skills. I have seen many examples of successful projects utilizing pure project managers, and many instances of the technologist and the "good guy" failing miserably. Is your experience different? If so, post a note and let us know what your think.

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